The Ultimate Magical Synaesthesia Machine

Rob Young

  • The Music of Painting by Peter Vergo
    Phaidon, 367 pp, £39.95, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 7148 5762 6

‘Can one imagine anything in the arts,’ Louis-Bertrand Castel wrote in 1763, ‘which would surpass the visible rendering of sound, which would enable the eyes to partake of all the pleasures which music gives to the ears?’ That would, it’s easy to admit, be quite a spectacle. But would it be the future of art, the logical outcome of whatever synthesising tendency the arts might have? That’s another question entirely. If it was going to happen at all, it was most likely during the futurist frenzy of the early 20th century. Peter Vergo, in The Music of Painting, examines a neglected aspect of the modernist era, when a variety of painters, poets, composers and inventors became preoccupied with the convergence of visual and aural stimuli – a utopian race towards a future of total sensory immersion.

Vergo’s starting point is the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total artwork’ which strove to consume the viewer/listener in a synthesis of music and drama – although, as he points out, the stage sets at Bayreuth were more often than not conventional quasi-Romantic backcloths and props. But Wagner had followers among the French post-impressionists, and decadents such as Baudelaire. The holy grail was the correspondance that would echo the speculation, in Les Fleurs du mal, that ‘perfumes, colours, sounds may correspond’, that fusing music and sound with colour and light would push the viewer/listener into a realm beyond thought. Baudelaire himself, like Delacroix and Madame de Staël, revered music’s ‘absence of reasoning’, an escape into pure sensuality. For de Staël, painting and music fused into a state ‘above thought’.

Frantisek Kupka’s ‘Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours’ (1912).
Frantisek Kupka’s ‘Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours’ (1912).

Vergo begins by showing how music, or the discourse surrounding it, helped painters legitimise the new abstraction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He undercuts various myths along the way. Whistler’s early 1870s Nocturnes are frequently cited as counterparts to Chopin’s mood pieces. In fact, as Vergo documents, Whistler didn’t know anything about classical music, preferring music hall songs, and it wasn’t his idea to call the paintings Nocturnes, but that of his patron Frederick Leyland. Another of his works, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), had its musical appellation added later, possibly as a result of the critic Paul Manz’s reference to the subject of the picture as ‘la symphonie du blanc’. Vergo finds various other dead ends. In Cézanne’s Young Girl at the Piano: Overture to ‘Tannhäuser’ (1869-70), an old woman sits mending a stocking while a girl extends her skeletal fingers over the piano keys; but the sheet music is blank, and the association with Wagner is a pretentious appendage to an otherwise unremarkable conversation piece.

Other painters, however, saw the perceived freedom of music as an inspiration in their attempt to free line and perspective from centuries-old strictures. (The influence went the other way, too: Debussy, with a backwards glance at Whistler, called his Nocturnes of 1897-99 a ‘study in grey’.) Post-impressionists such as Seurat split colour and light into a chromatic scale of hues, invoking music’s capacity to mould moods and stir emotions. One critic, Georg Jacob Wolf, dismissed Kandinsky’s Composition No. 2 as ‘a colourful hotchpotch’, adding that Kandinsky and his Blaue Reiter disciples ‘create free, pure, high art – so they say. For my part, all their huffing and puffing reminds me of the cackling of a lame hen.’ Kandinsky, however, saw music as authorising his ‘spiritual’ colour equivalences and abstractions. He venerated music and complained that traditional painting ‘employs its mighty resources not in order to speak directly to the soul, as all music does, but squanders them on … imitating objects’. In this, he was typical of many artists and composers who were less invested in the convergence of different media than in the hierarchy between them. Gauguin called the ear ‘inferior to the eye’, and Robert Delaunay confessed, in a letter to Franz Marc, that he was ‘horrified by music and noise’ and mistrusted ‘auditory perception’. August Endell, an architect associated with the Jugendstil movement, believed that no visual art had yet succeeded in affecting the emotions the way music could, and the painter Adolf Hölzel considered music the most sublime art form, since it had no obligation to represent nature.

One way to loosen this knot was to embrace synaesthesia. Hölzel attempted to map the colour wheel – a scientific division and organisation of colours – onto musical concepts, suggesting that a painting might be composed in a certain ‘key’ by combining complementary shades. Such notions of correspondence attracted scores of hopeful inventor-artists keen to devise the ultimate synaesthesia machine. Ernest Percyval Tudor-Hart, a Canadian painter giving classes in Paris, saw exact correspondences between a 12-colour wheel and the 12 semitones of the octave. One of his students, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, shared with Kandinsky notions about the ‘spiritual’ dimensions of colours (red-orange was ‘martial, blatant, self-satisfied and harsh’ etc), and spent much of his life creating a system for ‘harmonising colour’ called Synchromism.

Artists began to consider fusions of colour, light and sound, attempting to gain control over the entirety of a given experience. Kandinsky’s extraordinary play, The Yellow Sound, was an attempt to turn his almost abstract paintings into a three-dimensional, time-based spectacle. Adolphe Appia’s revised staging of Wagner’s operas leaned heavily on ‘effects of light’; Giovanni Segantini’s unrealised plans for a 200-yard-long painting of the Swiss Alps called for a specially designed building and appropriate sound effects; the architect Bruno Taut’s theatre piece The World Architect featured music, coloured lighting and a succession of shifting architectural forms: actors and living creatures were banished.

According to Vergo, Kandinsky and Schoenberg were in contact around 1911, when the painter, intrigued by the composer’s Theory of Harmony, initiated a correspondence. Schoenberg fancied himself a painter as well, and designed several backcloths for his opera Die glückliche Hand, in which he attempted to compose a ‘colour crescendo’, a ‘storm of colours’ that would change from bar to bar. He also exhibited some paintings in the first Blaue Reiter exhibition of 1911. (The Blaue Reiter artists’ almanac contained more articles on music than on painting.)

Vergo never quite acknowledges the extent to which these apparently radical ideas were combined with traditional methods. Just as Picasso, Matisse, Epstein, even Malevich and Mondrian, still worked with oil paint, watercolour and canvas, or bronze castings, so the musical innovators of the early 20th century – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern etc – never abandoned classical instrumentation. In pieces such as Things Seen from Right and Left (Without Spectacles) and Chapters Turned in All Directions, Erik Satie (who once declared a desire for his music to resemble perfume) implied that he was mimicking in music the smashed perspectives of Cubism, but they were essentially moody miniatures for piano and violin. Respighi’s The Pines of Rome called for a gramophone to be included in the orchestra, but merely to reproduce the sounds of birdsong in what was otherwise a fairly conventional tone poem.

Fighting this conservative tendency was a parade of inventors of eccentric contraptions: Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack’s ‘colour sonatina’; Anatol Graf Vietinghoff-Scheel’s ‘chromatophone’, an enormous assemblage of eight variously sized colour projectors and a ‘light keyboard’; Raoul Hausmann’s ‘optophone’, which the Imperial Patent Office in Berlin rejected as ‘not in the least beneficial in any normal sense of the word’; Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné’s ‘optophonic piano’; Zdenek Pesánek’s ‘colour piano’ (constructed in the shape of an abstracted guitar); Alexander László’s ‘sonchromatoscope’ – all novelties that aimed to correct what Hans Richter called ‘the stupid prejudice that contemporary art problems can only be resolved in oil painting or in bronze’. Grandes folies all: too delicate and rarefied to mass produce, or to enter any musical mainstream. One of the few successful entries into the commercial sphere was made by a German émigré in America, a graphic artist called Oskar Fischinger, whose painstakingly drawn equivalences of shape, colour and music formed some of the most exhilarating sequences in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

Music, Leibniz wrote, is an ‘occult exercise in mathematics performed by a mind unconscious of the fact that it is counting’. The fusing of art and music reaches its apotheosis in the fugue, in which melodic lines chase each other in varying patterns: reversal, inversion, repetition etc. You don’t use a fugue to describe a sea voyage or an Alpine peregrination: it is abstract music, whose dynamics and melodic shapes unfold according to an internal logic. There is a natural analogy between the fugue and abstract drawing and painting. Take, say, a Braque canvas from 1911, remove the ‘pictorial’ fragments – the metro tickets, violin strings and so on – and, Vergo argues, you’re left with patterns and structures comparable with the organisation of a fugue. He brilliantly unpicks Frantisek Kupka’s mindbending Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours (1912), whose ribbons of intersecting blue and red are developed like two voices in a duet, modulating through illusory space.

Paul Klee, who was a trained violinist, invented a draughtsman’s language for a Bach fugue’s structure. His watercolour Fugue in Red (1921) is one of the closest imaginable equivalents to the experience of listening to a Bach fugue, its echoing forms cut and pasted on top of one another, each a shadow of the previous one in carefully pitched chromatic gradations. Vergo sees Klee’s Once Emerged from Grey of Night, a small watercolour from 1918 consisting of letters on a pattern of coloured squares, as a realisation of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk on a tiny scale. Klee’s Drawing (Instrument for the New Music) of 1914 and Twittering Machine of 1922 are both composed of spindly lines, sketchily doubled and tripled, as if the artist’s thoughts are being teased onto the page. In the earlier drawing, a string or vertical pole has three horizontal bars fixed to it halfway up, suggestive of rotation. Quavers, the heads of crotchets, pale echoes of musical notation, are stuck to the lines, as if clinging on for dear life. What would this instrument sound like? It’s an object suggestive of a music that discards the written stave and lifts the practice of music into a conceptual, interpretative, improvisational realm. The instrument itself is welded together from the detritus of music’s past but looks like nothing that has yet existed.

Vergo’s arbitrary cut-off point, around 1950, makes for a maddening conclusion: this is just when the technology started to catch up with the imagination and many of the ideas explored in the book began to seem realisable. One nagging question – not explored here – is why music and surrealism never made comfortable bedfellows. You might imagine that music – its intangibility, its power to suggest oneiric visions and reveries, its elongation and moulding of time, its anti-linguistic ‘unreason’ – would have been irresistible to surrealists. Yet the Surrealist International was largely made up of painters, draughtsmen, sculptors, writers, all-purpose intellectuals and malcontents. André Breton, in his essay ‘Silence Is Golden’ (1946), practically banished the medium, clearly uncomfortable with the bourgeois setting of the concert hall. ‘Surrealist music’ is thin on the ground, though it could be argued that Pierre Schaeffer’s pioneering work with musique concrète in the late 1940s shifted the paradigm of composition towards a more hands-on, automatist methodology that chimed with surrealist practice.

Vergo is good on paintings that turn on musical principles or translate musical structures into plastic form, but less convincing on, for example, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, his bedazzled response to his move to New York City in October 1940. His interpretation is based on a false premise: that Mondrian’s disconnected primary-coloured rectangles and white background ‘call irresistibly to mind the infectious, syncopated rhythms of jazz’. They don’t: in many ways the picture is very far from the flowing improvisations of a Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton solo. Perhaps Mondrian himself is to blame for the misconception. ‘True boogie woogie I conceive as homogeneous in intention with mine in painting,’ he wrote. ‘Destruction of melody … is the equivalent of destruction of natural appearance.’ Whatever ‘true boogie woogie’ may be, it isn’t concerned with the destruction of melody; Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen and electronic music would soon be seeing to that. Yet Vergo leaves these assertions untested.

In the final pages cracks start to appear in Vergo’s thesis about music, as the world of correspondences between colour, shape and sound is ruined under the collective onslaught of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and ‘happenings’ (Gesamtkunstwerk with a Beatnik twist). These ideas started to gain focus and coherence in the 1950s, just as the technology became available to realise them, and yet this is where Vergo abandons the story, with a confused reading of Cage’s 433” (not a ‘silent’ piece – a myth Vergo insists on repeating – but a space of potential sound, open to whatever noise might drift in). This was also the age of the graphic score, in which art becomes the instruction book for musical performance. Instead of exploring this line of thought, Vergo admits he finds Picabia’s Music Is Like Painting (1914-17) ‘baffling’, even though its leaping lines bear a strong resemblance to the more intuitive graphic scores of the 1960s and 1970s, representing the dynamics of sound as thrusting lines and curvilinear flows. He goes on to claim that interpreters of Cage’s later works ‘are likely to find themselves confronted by a baffling variety of choices’. In fact, they’re only as baffling as you want to make them, and the ‘choices’ are usually made by quite straightforward, deterministic strategies – casting the I Ching, overlaying transparent sheets and so on.

Vergo does mention several works after his 1950 cut-off point, including the debut ‘happening’ at Black Mountain College in 1952, which he offers as a late figuration of the Gesamtkunstwerk. It’s a shame he didn’t extend himself at least as far as the Le Corbusier/Varèse/Xenakis pavilion at the Brussels World Fair in 1958, whose colossal sound system, colour-washed walls and film projections created a totally immersive architectural space. Klein’s patent blue, launched in 1960 alongside his Monotone Symphony, a sloppy paint performance involving an orchestra and pigment-slathered sylphs, also seems significant. And although he cites Moholy-Nagy’s visionary use of a turntable to create ‘sound handwriting’, he pays little attention to the impact of the phonograph on the arts. He might have included, for example, Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs – kinetic illusions activated by a turntable – or the adoption of abstract expressionism as the natural visual language of jazz. Pollock, whose White Light was reproduced on the sleeve of Ornette Coleman’s iconic Free Jazz in 1960, could have been cited here: he occasionally played fiddle with the left-wing Composers Collective – perhaps his drip paintings should be seen as a form of folk art.

Vergo’s book leaves one with very little sense of what lay beneath all the efforts to synthesise sound and music. What were Tudor-Hart and Macdonald-Wright hoping to trigger in their audiences by means of their finely calibrated experiments in light, colour and sound? Didn’t the psychedelic movement of the 1960s achieve a synaesthetic mix, while aiming to open minds? Vergo doesn’t consider any of this. But then, there is a slight fustiness to the whole enterprise: at one point he alludes to ‘the kind of mixing table often encountered in a theatre or recording studio’. That would be a mixing desk. And surely there’s one in every studio? The trajectory from the riotous light experiments of the early 20th century to the minimalist explorations of silence, noise and extended temporal forms, begins to emerge as the real, fascinating story of modern music in the past century, but Vergo drops the ball. In the wake of such macro-histories of 20th-century music as Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, there’s little excuse for treating music as unaffected by world events, or for ignoring changes in the way it has been consumed and the spaces it has occupied.